TW: Sexual Assault
The Handmaid’s Tale is my favourite book – cliché for a nineteen-year-old humanities student, I am aware. I picked up a copy of the 1985 feminist landmark for the first time at seventeen, and the momentum of Margaret Atwood’s storytelling made it difficult for me to put it down. I’ve had a morbid fascination with dystopian fiction since my pre-teens, with how the genre speaks to our anxieties about the world we live in, where it is going. I was obsessed with Divergent, The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and a myriad of other famous young-adult fictions. Post-Atwood, I’ve explored the other more ‘grown-up’ classics – 1984, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange. None of them have engaged me as The Handmaid’s Tale could. I often come back to its rich depiction of protagonist Offred’s inner life, her interaction with the bleak theocratic world of Gilead, the network of flourishing and fleeting personal relationships she forges out of an unimaginably dire situation.
Atwood’s writing spoke to the frustrations I was feeling, as I began to understand what it means to be a woman in a world that too often views us as commodities before it treats us as people. The Handmaid’s Tale extrapolates from the real-life situations in which women are reduced to their reproductive capacities – whether for the purpose of procreation (in Atwood’s universe, climate disaster has left many infertile), or for one-sided pleasure in sex. In Gilead as in our own society, women’s bodies are seen as owed to others. Fred Waterford, one of the architects of the new state, demands this and Offred’s adoration too. She remarks that ‘The Commander likes it when I distinguish myself, show precocity, like an attentive pet, prick-eared and eager to perform’. Our protagonist is obliged by her position as a handmaid to give Waterford sex. Waterford further abuses his power over her to extract an imitation of free sexuality, something like what might have been called a passionate affair in the world before. He believes that his position of authority renders him invincible. How familiar.
Last Monday, infamous Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of a first degree criminal sex act, as well as of rape in the third degree. A pittance, maybe, given the five charges levied against him – but it is hard to overestimate the significance of the court ruling. In the US, less than 1% of rapes lead to felony convictions, so the countless women who have been in the position of Weinstein’s accusers coveted some small, private victory in his sentencing. Actor Rose McGowan has been one of Weinstein’s most vocal assailants, and one of many whose ability to take him to task has been hampered by the US statute of limitations. McGowan was raped by Weinstein at the Sundance festival in 1997 – she told The Guardian that on hearing news of his jail sentence, she felt as if she ‘had about 500,000lb lifted off [her] shoulders’. For Weinstein to be toppled is an indication that the times are changing – it is no longer acceptable to discuss sexual harassment as being within the remit of what ambitious young women should expect in competitive, male-dominated industries. Tom Hanks was right in his 2017 prediction that the producer’s name would become ‘an identifying moniker for a state of being for which there was a before and an after’. It only took three years, 105 on-the-record allegations, and a globalized social media movement to take him down. His lawyer’s reaction? ‘He took it like a man’.
No one could have wholly expected the ruling. We are so accustomed to seeing giants of popular culture absolved of their wrongdoings, because our collective memory is short. Survivors of sexual violence are fed on a diet of forgive and forget – ‘he’s a nice lad, really’; ‘but I’m sure she won’t do it again‘; ‘oh, he definitely meant well’. But forgiveness is a powerful gift, and in choosing to withhold it from Harvey Weinstein, a precedent is set for us to support all victims of seemingly untouchable abusers. We have to be careful of who we forgive, for what and why. Change comes from the bottom up – sometimes it is all we can do to pass judgement on those more powerful than us, and stick to it. The Handmaid’s Tale has resonated with readers since the 80s because it is hyper-real. In the overwhelming severity of her situation, Offred tells us that ‘forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest.’ Fewer sexual assaults would be committed if perpetrators knew absolutely that such behaviour would incur complete social rejection – that as a society we had agreed not to forgive, not to forget. We do both to make our own lives easier, to reconcile a beloved public image with an ugly private reality. We do it to make ourselves feel safe – Weinstein’s lawyer proudly claims never to have experienced sexual harassment or violence, because she ‘would never put [herself] in that situation’. Deny, explain, forgive, forget. Rise and repeat.
Re-reading chapter 23, I found the observation made by Offred that has stuck with me most. ‘Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it.’ And she was right – it doesn’t amount to the same thing. Hollywood will still for decades to come be littered with abusive ‘untouchables’, proximity to whom seems to bestow power and fame and advancement. The same goes for other spheres of influence, too – the world has been quick to put accusations against Donald Trump on the backburner, recalling them only when making a case for his impeachment or deselection. Choosing to hold individuals such as these to account is all we can do to turn the tide against them. It is wholly our choice, and it unnerves those whose position is endangered by it. Weinstein attempted to elicit the public’s forgiveness – or its empathy, at least – throughout his trial. He put on a display of fragility, to show the world how beaten down he had been by the uproar against him, appearing outside of court with a zimmer frame. A guilty verdict despite this says what we all wish we could: ‘we don’t believe you, we don’t forgive you, we won’t forget’. Women in The Handmaid’s Tale spread solidarity through the (literal) writing on the wall: ‘nolite te bastardes carborundorum’, or ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’. A mock-Latin phrase found by Offred, left to her by her predecessor. The phrase is well-recognised now, as memorable to audiences as it was to the two handmaids. Atwood’s female readers are glad that in this world, it is legal at least for us to read and write. We can also spread solidarity in the open, without the need for whispers and sealed letters, if we so choose. We can tell those who have experienced sexual harassment or assault that we have their backs without a need for convoluted Latin phrases. A conviction came about because survivors of Harvey Weinstein did not allow him to ‘grind them down’ – they did it to him, instead.